Le sport répond très largement au besoin qu’ont les armées d’une formation globale de leurs membres, individuellement et collectivement : capacités physiques, goût du risque et de l’effort, esprit d’équipe, dans une éthique partagée du dépassement de soi et de la solidarité.
Pourtant, ces convergences ont leurs limites : la pratique du sport, activité pacifique s’il en est selon des règles partagées, ne prépare en rien à affronter la violence déchaînée et la malignité de l’homme, qui sont le lot du soldat, avec pour horizon la destruction et la mort.
Par une sorte de retour, c’est l’éthique exigeante du métier des armes qui peut éclairer une pratique du sport trouvant parfois une inspiration dévoyée dans les métaphores guerrières les plus contestables.
Le métier des armes, plus que n’importe quelle autre activité, réclame un engagement de l’être tout entier, intellectuel, physique et moral, au sein d’une collectivité qui exige de chacun de ses membres un dévouement hors du commun. Le choc des exigences antagonistes des capacités de réflexion et de celles de l’action, comme de l’action individuelle et de la solidarité collective, s’y trouve en outre plus qu’ailleurs décuplé. Or les activités sportives, dans leur grande diversité, concourent pour une bonne part à l’acquisition de ces capacités.
Pour la formation individuelle, c’est un truisme, le développement des capacités physiques relève très largement du sport : force, adresse, équilibre général, endurance. Mais le sport met aussi à l’épreuve et nourrit ce que les sportifs appellent le « mental » : audace, goût du risque et du dépassement de soi, sens de la discipline, confiance en soi, esprit de décision.
Ainsi, sur ce dernier point, peut-on considérer que certains sports constituent de véritables préparations à la décision. Dans la pratique de l’alpinisme ou du parapente, par exemple, le passage du temps de la réflexion et de la circonspection à celui du choix et de la résolution revêt souvent une acuité particulière. En effet, comment mieux se préparer psychologiquement à la conversion mentale qu’exige le pas à franchir dans les décisions difficiles, celui qui sépare le champ de la complexité des paramètres à considérer – qui exige lucidité, prudence et pondération – à celui de la binarité brutale du passage à l’acte – qui est celui du caractère, de l’énergie et de l’audace ?
Mais si on distingue sports individuels et sports collectifs, l’action militaire, elle, est toujours collective. Cependant, là encore, le sport, sport d’équipe en l’occurrence, est une école sans pareille, celle de la solidarité, de l’émulation, de l’esprit d’équipe, de la volonté collective de gagner. Là aussi, on y apprend à dépasser des exigences antagonistes : celles de l’engagement individuel résolu et celles de l’abnégation que requiert souvent l’action collective.
La cause pourrait donc sembler entendue : le sport serait une métaphore de la guerre et rien mieux que sa pratique n’y préparerait ceux qui ont choisi l’étrange métier des armes. Or un tel raccourci traduit une dangereuse confusion. En effet, quelle que soit la convergence qu’il peut y avoir entre pratique des sports, individuels et collectifs, et formation au métier des armes – on a bien dit « formation » –, il est nécessaire de mesurer en quoi cette pratique diffère radicalement de l’action militaire effective, sauf à s’égarer sur de fausses pistes.
La première différence, à vrai dire radicale, tient au rapport à la mort. Dans le sport, la mort survient par accident et tout doit concourir à éviter celui-ci. Elle reste en revanche toujours à l’horizon de l’action militaire, dont la spécificité réside dans l’usage de la force au cœur d’affrontements où la vie même est en jeu.
La deuxième différence a trait aux comportements des protagonistes : la pratique du sport suppose des règles communes qui s’imposent à tous les pratiquants, aux adversaires comme aux coéquipiers. Leur non-observation disqualifie le déviant et le place « hors jeu » ; il y a nécessairement symétrie et harmonie entre tous. L’action militaire, quant à elle, expose à devoir faire face à toutes les déviances ; on peut même se demander, dès lors que l’évidence de violences insupportables justifie l’emploi de la force pour y mettre un terme, si la norme de l’action militaire n’est pas de plus en plus dans la dissymétrie des comportements entre les belligérants.
Il est enfin une troisième différence dont la mise en évidence passe par une juste perception du ressort le plus profond de l’action militaire, cette alchimie relationnelle singulière qu’on appelle la « fraternité d’armes » et qui, seule, peut expliquer le degré hors normes de l’engagement militaire. Expression de solidarités croisées, esprit de camaraderie d’une part, confiance absolue entre chef et subordonnés d’autre part, elle n’atteint l’intensité qu’on lui connaît, avec une composante affective prononcée, que du fait du rapport sous-jacent au sacrifice et à la mort, fût-il inconscient.
C’est pourquoi la « fraternité d’armes » ne saurait être confondue avec l’« esprit d’équipe ». Ce dernier, inhérent à la pratique du sport, est certes une composante essentielle de la première, mais n’en couvre pas tout le champ, loin s’en faut.
En bref, le sport est par excellence une activité pacifique – dans le monde grec, la guerre s’arrête pour les Olympiades –, où les vertus sont exaltées, quand l’action militaire, par définition, s’exerce sur le théâtre de la guerre, sous l’ombre omniprésente de la malignité de l’homme.
Un tel constat permet d’identifier les limites des convergences entre pratique du sport et exercice du métier des armes. Il doit être clair que si la pratique du sport est un volet déterminant de la formation des militaires, tant physique que morale – au sens des « forces morales » –, au-delà des aspects techniques, elle se situe bien en deçà de l’ampleur de la problématique de l’engagement guerrier : elle est notamment incapable de préparer à affronter la violence déchaînée, dans une dissymétrie parfois radicale des comportements des belligérants.
- L’humanisme en partage
En retour, la métaphore guerrière, dès lors qu’elle s’exprime sur ce même mode de la violence, comme on le voit trop souvent, ne peut impunément inspirer un monde du sport fondé très largement sur le respect intransgressible de règles communes. Telle est d’ailleurs, pour l’essentiel, l’éthique du sport : celle du dépassement de soi dans l’observation de la règle, une éthique partagée par tous les protagonistes dans un environnement ordonné.
L’éthique du métier des armes, quant à elle, exige qu’à la violence déchaînée et à la malignité de l’homme, sauf à trahir nos valeurs de civilisation, soit opposée une force maîtrisée. En ce sens, elle est aussi exigence de respect de règles contraignantes, mais qui peuvent n’être en rien partagées par l’adversaire, et ce dans un univers hors normes et chaotique.
À l’éthique du sport répond ainsi une éthique encore plus exigeante, celle du métier des armes. Les confondre, ce serait s’exposer à bien des déconvenues. En revanche, leur essence commune, celle de l’humanisme, est le gage qu’elles peuvent trouver à se renforcer de leurs pratiques respectives.
teducation, seen as an aspect of his ability to survive on the battlefield, was then completely transformed by the pacifism-imbued or even “demilitarising” interpretation then prevalent in Western societies. This process accelerated with the war in Algeria. From that time, there was indisputably a separation between French youth and the duty to defend their country. The physical “knocking into shape” changed from a factor to ensure suitability for combat under fire to being, in some militant interpretations, one in alienating recruits. This means that the armed forces’ practice in terms of physical exercises and sporting activity relied on practices relating to specific societies and historical periods, with changing views of its utility.
We would like, here, to consider the question of the relationships between elements of sporting activity and elements of war, examining them from a number of overlapping perspectives. How does the military regard a soldier’s physical training, given that practising sport has been a component since the 19th century? How do the armed forces productively invest in aspects of physical education while adapting them to military practice – which does not necessarily mean fighting wars? How can we compare and contrast action inherent in war with action involved in physical exercises and sporting activity as inculcated by military training?
- Reference works used by the armed forces
Present-day society gives a lot of attention to the body, which has come to be seen not only as a living entity but even more as an anthropological idea. A soldier must be made more “technical”, that is made suitable for the practice of war, or at least preparing for war. But what technical aspects do the armed forces claim to use as a basis when training potential fighters?
For a historian of waging war, it is desirable initially to clarify certain terms; these reveal different – though complementary – approaches by the military to bodily expression. What choices do the armed forces make? The terms “sport”, “gymnastics” and “physical education” are not synonymous. Gymnastics can be defined as “the art of exercising, strengthening and developing the human body through certain physical exercises”, while physical education is a collection of activities that are not specific to the military field. In France, the field includes physical education clubs and school physical education. This area has its own means, such as “physical culture”, game-type sports (notably football) and sporting or athletic activities such as walking, running, discus-throwing and shot-putting, fencing, wrestling and swimming.
Military gymnastics appeared early in France, thanks to Colonel Francisco Amoros (1770-1848). After serving in the Spanish army, Amoros was made Minister of the Interior (by Joseph Bonaparte). He moved to France at the end of the First Empire and, in agreement with Napoleon, introduced the idea of gymnastic training into the French army. He summed up his approach – fairly simple, it may be said – in the concise formula: “My method ends where it ceases to be of use.” The approach was initially applied universally, and the École de Joinville, established in 1852, was given responsibility for training gymnastics instructors. When Amoros died, his methods were continued. The school’s first Director, Major Louis d’Argy, and his civilian assistant, Napoléon Laisné, had previously worked together. The exercises were sometimes fairly violent, but they stressed the link between physical education and mental training, particularly in the sense of subjugating oneself through physical exercises. Amoros took inspiration from the theories of Pestalozzi, who himself followed the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and affirmed that “doing good works and serving the common good are the main aim of gymnastics.”
Those at the Joinville school, who thought only in terms of utilitarianism, accordingly remained sceptical about “sport”, as an activity marked by amateurism. We must, however, acknowledge that such categories are not fixed for eternity. In 1906, officers who were sceptical about traditional military gymnastics introduced boxing, swimming and cycling at Joinville – and those they trained distinguished themselves in competitions1. Five of them won awards in the complete athletics competition of 1913, awards being made to only six competitors in total! After the directive of 1 September 1912, reorganising the school, its influence indisputably grew. In August 1914, however, it had to close its doors, for reasons we can imagine.
The most unclassifiable theoretician on physical exercises to train sporting champions is indisputably Georges Hébert (1875-1957), who came from the military world. As a naval trainee in 1893, he developed the “natural method”, inspired in part by the methods of Georges Demenÿ. It involved moulding the trainees’ characters as much as their bodies. He experimented with methods and practices, first within the French Navy, later developing them further for the (terrestrial) army, in Reims, from 1912 onwards.2 He was given responsibility for training a unit of marines undergoing physical preparation before leaving for a naval posting. In that task, he showed all he could do. On 20 December 1905, Hébert sent a draft manual on special gymnastics to the Navy, and it was approved in January 1906. His idea was to impose gymnastics as the basis for training prospective marines. Armand Fallières, President of France, amended the Order of 30 April 1897 on organisation of the fleet, prescribing instruction in gymnastics and fencing for the battalion of trainee marines at Lorient. Hébert’s reputation in the Navy then grew enormously, and in 1910 he was appointed Technical Director for the Navy’s physical-exercise programmes, a newly created post. His first theoretical work, Practical Guide to Physical Education, was published in 1909, followed by The Code of Strength (1911), Manly Culture through Physical Activity (1913) and Sport versus Physical Education (1925). A total of nine books describing the “natural method” appeared in 30 years. It was a much more attractive method than its predecessors, revolutionising what was the norm in physical education. Being of virtually universal application, it could not help but be of interest to the military.
However, Hebert’s uncompromising attitude, and his seeking for his approach to dominate ruined the prospects for his pioneering work to be recognised, notably by the academic world. This was all the more the case as those who worked in the theory and practice of physical training and sport, such as Hébert, were coming into conflict with another category of experts: doctors. Dr Nimier, the armed forces’ Medical Inspector General, for example, gave a shooting lesson in 1914: “Hold yourself in balance, load the weapon and then hold it, look at the target and pull the trigger. Those are all operations that, in all their movements – to the most intimate depths of the human body – involve extremely complex nerve impulses and muscle actions of highly varied natures. And, before being knocked into shape, the prospective marksman must repeat each of the abovementioned operations numerous times, separately at first and even by breaking them down into substeps, subsequently trying to reproduce them ever more quickly... The trainee must then, first of all, want to act – and it is only progressively, through habit, that these nerve impulses and muscle actions gradually become subconscious and ultimately, as a physiologist might say, reflex actions. To a trained marksman, it should be possible to call the various shooting actions automatic… To conclude, we agree with Captain Leblois3, who said that training someone to be a good marksman means developing the person’s understanding and physical qualities. It means giving the soldier the ability to size up the situation, together with self-esteem, and the ability to keep cool. In a word, it means creating individual worth.”
With scant ceremony, Hébert sent the doctors back to their precious studies. “Some doctors believed for a moment that they were better qualified than anyone else, as a result of their professional knowledge, to understand the best processes of human development… A working method cannot, in fact, be inferred from a simple knowledge of anatomy and physiology… Their training is far from making doctors athletes or models of physical perfection.”4
Whatever discussions there may be on the relationships between physical and sporting training on the one hand and war on the other, contemporary French history has repeatedly attributed defeats to a lack of physical training.
That was the case following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. A number of superior officers and generals, who were more in the nature of sycophants or order-takers – as had been the case since Napoleon – were not up to the mark. There is the story of the major-general who refused to get out of his bath! The feeling of defeat thus coincided with a period when ambitions for social progress came from the privileged social classes and political élites, expressing themselves in two ways: firmly instilling republican ideas through the schools and military service, and generalising sporting activities throughout society. As Pierre Armand5 described it, a coherent military-civil partnership was thus being sketched out, through those two foci of citizen life: schools and military service. Odile Roynette also write eloquently about “military service, a source of national regeneration”6.
Prussia became the model to copy in order to improve the chances of again defeating that country. On 14 January 1883, Jules Galland, President of the La Cambrésienne gymnastics society, made a long speech7 in which he drew inspiration from the German Turnen movement, established by Professor Jahn, early in the 19th century. Galland extolled the role played by gymnastics societies, saying: “How different it would be if we sent to the army whole contingents of men accustomed to fatigue, drilled in marching, finding a rifle light compared to the weights with which they were used to juggling, and bold in the noble way that guides strong men in decisive moments.” In the same way as France’s military Staff College was modelled on the Prussian Military Academy, the advocates of physical training for French soldiers based their approach on German gymnastics.
I don’t have to go back in detail here to the endless discussions that preceded the introduction of general military service8. We should, however, bear in mind a number of recurring elements. From an ideological perspective, the idea, inherited from the time of the 1789 revolution, that an armed populace had to be created was often put forward. It is more or less specifically a French notion, and it led to a number of contradictions. The soldiers were, for instance, supposed to bring to bear the same virtues on the battlefield as they displayed in their urban existence. The civilian ideal is thus expressed in the democratic concept of debate, which is diametrically opposed to the military ideal of internalising discipline, resulting in perfect obedience.
The most famous interpretation resulting from a simplistic reading of the post-1870 revanchist ideas, and an idealised expression of the armed forces/school duality, was the introduction of all too well-known school “battalions”. It was not the military establishment that demanded the institution of those cadets and similar practices, but a governmental Order of 1882 that provided for children from the age of 13 – that is the age when compulsory schooling ended – to be entered in the “battalions”. Each establishment was to have its own flag and military instructors who would introduce the pupils to basic discipline, gymnastics and limited shooting, with just 30 cartridges a year. That remained completely theoretical, however. The army was reluctant to spare NCOs from their normal tasks so that they could instruct children. Also, the teachers, despite being very patriotic at the time, did not necessarily look favourably on the prospect of someone else replacing them as authority figures, where they had hitherto been unchallenged. Alain Corbin, investigating the situation in Limousin, has shown that only one rural teacher in that region established such a battalion. There was relatively little participation in the movement by the high schools and junior secondary schools, and it looked as if these prescriptions of patriotism from “on high” were needed for the “good people” but not for middle-class children. The “school battalions” could, in fact, be summed up as a marvellous public-relations exercise by the Paris centres of republicanism. Proof of the venture’s success can be seen in the fact that the initiative is still today the subject of impressively overblown memories. On the other hand, when the “battalions” were disbanded, in 1892, the army encouraged the creation of military-preparation societies. Starting in 1903, these awarded military-preparation certificates giving certain material advantages such as days’ leave and access to the corporal-pupil platoons. As soon as there are material advantages, individuals are interested, and the societies grew. There were 2,000 of them in 1905 and 6,000 in 1913.
With the Vichy regime, from 1940, we can again see a systematic invocation of the lack of physical training as an explanation for France’s defeat, blame being laid on secular teachers and on the fact that the French soldiers would have had the stamina only to run for the protection of the Loire valley. In a work devoted to the Phoney War9, I have shown that it was difficult to get beyond the idealised images. You need only look at the pictures of some of the 1940 generals-in-chief to see that their shapes were often more impressive than their being in shape, in both the high command and the troops.
Likewise in 1946, there were Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s plans to reform military service, aiming to combat the soldiers’ flabbiness by devoting most of their instruction to physical exercises in camps where they would be under canvas in the open countryside.
- Sport as a utilitarian tool: instruction for fighters
The distinctive feature of the military is that it “must be able to adapt to the extreme constraints and demands made on professional soldiers”10, and this is associated with a state of social development. From the time that conscription was introduced, various methods have been implemented to measure the physical capabilities of potential fighters. This is evidenced by the revision councils, chaired by the regional Préfets, when universal military service was established in 1889. These days, the sigycop11 is the main instrument used to assess soldiers’ physical capabilities. It accompanies the soldier throughout his career and influences the roles in which he is asked to serve.
Knocking a soldier’s body into shape with a view to war involves, first and foremost, working to enhance his stamina. For that, the army has always believed in the value of repeating actions. Repetition gradually increases confidence, and only confidence enables survival and winning.
As an example, I wanted to search the officers’ manuals in order to check what images they gave the officers of the physical preparation of men. I selected two, published in the same year (1929), by the same publisher (Lavauzelle): the manual for infantry officers and the manual for artillery officers. My choice of the 1929 edition was deliberate, because it included lessons learned from the Great War.
First of all, it is interesting to note that the artillery officers’ manual devoted only three pages to exercises in close formation and to limbering-up exercises, whereas that for the infantry devoted 15 pages to them. This, of course, reflects a matter of definition: it is the foot soldiers who most need a body in ideal shape, those in the artillery making use of horse-power, first literally and then in mechanical form.
In the infantry officers’ manual, the “general considerations” specified the use of and role to be played by physical education: “Military physical education is aimed at developing soldiers as men, while military physical instruction is aimed at developing them as fighters. The former clearly relates to the individual, while the latter must be considered as instructing the group.” There is also the means to be used; for physical education it was: “lessons in physical culture, game-type sports (e.g. football), and athletic activities (such as walking, running, throwing the javelin and putting the shot, fencing, boxing, wrestling and swimming); backed up by observing health and hygiene rules.”12
Military physical instruction, in contrast, “makes use in a more specifically military sense of the qualities of agility and stamina that well-ordered physical education has inculcated in the soldier.” It comprises, for everyone, the practice of individual and collective sporting activities, developing the troop’s morale and collective values; with, for individual development, the military applications and training to fulfil the sub-group’s own role in combat. For infantrymen, this includes bayonet practice and hand-to-hand fighting, grenade-throwing and training for machine-gunner units (both for the machine gunners themselves and those who keep the weapons operating smoothly). There are special limbering-up exercises for riflemen, diverse training with equipment, arming and loading in combat (including marching, running, hiding, jumping and scaling walls). There are exercises in attacking in tightly restricted terrain with all sorts of obstacles.13 Sometimes practice was a long way from theory. There is a reminder in bold that “all men in the company, including officers, employees and those from the auxiliary service, carry out, each day, a session of physical training.”14 How were things in the daily practice of those units? To judge by the evidence of the fighters, the obligation to practise was far from evident.
Applying the principles for physical education and instruction should make it possible to put the soldiers into three categories: normal subjects, those to be managed and controlled, and those to go for retraining. To achieve that classification, typical tests involve a 100-metre race (in a straight line!), a thousand-metre race, high jumps, long jumps with a run-up, putting the shot (of 16 lb, using both the left and right arms), climbing, two-hand weightlifting and swimming. The manual specified that 50-metres free-style swimming must be done “in the warm season” if the unit does not have a swimming pool15. The sessions must include three parts: warming up with walking, limbering-up exercises for the arms, legs, trunk, and then chest and combined. After the lesson, returning to calm includes slow walking with breathing exercises, marching with singing or whistling, and marching in quick time.
The instructor is recommended to be alert to signs of fatigue in the soldiers and to have a perfect knowledge of the manifestations. “Jumpiness, bad mood, aggressiveness towards comrades, profuse sweating, characteristic facial pallor, contraction of the face muscles (looking drawn), looking exhausted are all unmistakable signs for the instructor. … The best cure for fatigue is eating and sleep.”16 The terms used in Règlement général d’éducation physique. Méthode française [General regulation of physical education – French Method] can be found reproduced, word for word, in the military regulations.
Alongside the true exercises, there is a recommendation to practise individual and collective games and sporting activities “in special sessions, two or three times a week”. Examples given are javelin-throwing, basketball, football and water-polo, though we may doubt whether this was widespread.
We should, for instance, reflect on how the army, at least in the late 1920s, saw its relationships with sporting activities. Useful sports were of course sought, as, from the military’s perspective, the activities are not a desirable end in themselves. Apart from the “fundamental work”, to use Hébert’s expression, athletic practices directly associated with engaging in combat were used. Collective sporting activities were thought of only in terms of encouraging cohesion in the “primary group”.
To lead into my next part, it is worth recalling an anecdote. In his remarkable thesis on the profession of 19th century gendarmes17, Arnaud-Dominique Houte calculated that in 1883 the gendarmes whose size we know averaged 85 kilos and were 1.68 metres tall: real athletes, used to physical exercise! I’ve been upbraided for ignoring the fact that the sample was very small (about 40 in the study in question), and that those members had often come from the army, going into the gendarmerie so that they didn’t have to fight.
- Internalising physical education,
and pale reflections of sporting instincts
What remains of sporting activity when war comes? Sometimes, it comes along automatically as part of the war! Jean-Julien Weber, an officer and priest, refers to a situation that occurred in 1917, in a village just behind the front. “The great distractions were horses and bathing, and the colonel organised some competitions between the few soldiers who remained.”18 Then there is Maurice Pensuet, who was just a lance corporal in the 169th infantry regiment, and spoke about a football match that took place on 25 March 1917 between some soldiers from the regiment’s 1st battalion and an English Red-Cross platoon19.
But moving from the instruction of soldiers to practice in war is not a straightforward matter. We know that distributing footballs, from November 1939 onwards, made very little impact on the poor physical shape of some of the soldiers in second-rate divisions, who tended to show more interest in the post-match celebrations than the game itself.
Otherwise, it is surprisingly difficult to pin down what relationships exist between keeping the body in shape and action in war, as all that remains are pale shadows of the original intentions. In contrast, the associations with physical training are profound and obvious. We thus come back to the ideas of fundamental physical qualities.
From a theoretical perspective, Hébert had pointed out one of the obvious qualities, stressing the importance of speed in the fourth edition (1943) of his book on the “natural method”. He said: “Speed is not just a component of strength, but actually a form of strength… It is pointless to emphasise the importance of speed in the practicalities of life; it can appear at any moment. You need only remember the most fundamental aspect of its usefulness: saving your own life or that of others. Providing emergency assistance or getting yourself out of danger demands speed of all types: quick thinking and speed of execution, etc. Inadequate speed can cost lives.”20 The truth of these common-sense observations in battle is obvious, of course.
Ability to march is indisputably one form of this. The ultimate purpose of all physical instruction imposed throughout military training is to produce troops hardened to walking.
During the Great War, following the manpower crisis, men in the Territorial Army, who were 39 to 49 years old, were progressively moved into the active units. How were the physical capabilities of these mature men – especially in relation to life expectancy in the early 20th century – perceived by their officers? Without claiming to be exhaustive, many judgements were severe. “Aged 40 on average, they lack flexibility and stamina when called upon to exert themselves, rather than lacking goodwill. Nearly all of them are puny” was one observation21. Some people quickly made a link between the Territorials’ physical weakness and distrust of their fighting capacities. It was said: “the reinforcements do not have the essential qualities – from a mental, physical training or military instruction standpoint – to engage courageously in battle, and they do not inspire much confidence.”22
Among the active troops, marching exercise was not painless. Maurice Genevoix gives an account of a September 1914 approach march in the vicinity of the Vaux-Marie farm, which was to give its name to a terrible battle. He describes: “Marching across fields, a march of sleepwalkers, mechanical, with legs feeling like jelly and a fuzzy head. It lasted a long time, hours it seemed.”23 Walking was made still more arduous by the weather. Genevoix suffered a “long and hesitating stage. It wasn’t really a stage, but a wondering walk of those who had strayed off their path… The road was just a river of mud. Each step raised a shower of water. Bit by bit, your greatcoat got heavier. You’d try to bury your neck in your shoulders, but the rain managed to get in and cold rivulets would run down your skin. Your pack stuck to your back. At each stop I stayed standing, not even daring to raise an arm, for fear of starting new rivulets.”24
Once war had become an established fact, the approach marches to the trenches took on a dramatic appearance each time, because of the load that each soldier had to carry on his back to sustain him through four or five days in the front line. Daniel Mornet spoke about the conditions during those approach marches, which were made highly dangerous by the German bombardment of points through which they had to pass. “And we marched, whether it was raining or simply the wintry conditions, through a winding lake of mud that rose over your ankles… Lying down is sound advice for a Sunday idler strolling around with his cane, but it is less sound for a miller carrying a sack of grain on his back. We were more burdened than a miller, and anyone who collapsed on the ground, on his stomach, would have more difficulty getting up again than a beetle on its back. Also, from time to time we would come across a dismal group. There would be one or more comrades lying in some muddy corner, groaning. Or maybe they were silent, because they were dead.”25
On 17 April 1917, Pensuet wrote to his parents: “It took us 30 hours to cover 45 kilometres with ammunition and food for five days.” He covered another 40 kilometres on 2 July. He did another 15, and noted “having dragged myself another 15 kilometres with azor26 on my back; my shoulder blades couldn’t take any more.” On 15 August he covered 20 kilometres, and then 22 on the 16th27… First and foremost, the poilu was to be fantastic in handling the ground and walking.
Running is a more intense version of walking or marching, but also involves forms that are internalised during military instruction, as we saw when quoting Hébert’s words from 1943. It is running forwards – charging – or running back – a rushed retreat – that is liable to cause the most damage to fighting units. Furthermore, it is not always the former that result in the heaviest losses.
Apart from walking and running, there are other forms of action directly related to sporting and athletic activities that may be included in the instruction. Grenade-throwing formed part of solders’ instruction from the time of the Great War, and the connections with javelin-throwing, and even more with shot-putting, are obvious. Warrant Officer Marc Bloch, an enlisted man caught up in the rough fighting of the Argonne forest early in 1915, referred to these actions derived from athletic activities. As he said: “Our weapon was to be melinite-based petards that we threw by hand, after lighting the primer. I had a marvellous thrower, T., a miner endowed with strong arms and imperturbable bravery.”28 Captain Delvert, a history teacher and wonderful example of the Third Republic’s meritocratic values, a reserve officer and hero at the R1 redoubt of the trenches defending Vaux fort, said much the same: “We left our dead as memories in the trenches. There they were, stiff in their bloody tent canvas. I recognised them. Here’s Cosset ... and Delahaye; fiery “Wild Time”, stretching out his waxy hand, a hand so brilliantly skilful at throwing grenades...29 It was magnificent weather. There were the cracks of grenades all over the place. It’s very beautiful, grenade warfare. The grenade-thrower, firmly installed behind a parapet, launches the missile with all the grace of a tennis player.”30
Many other relics of sporting or athletic activities directly resulting from physical education can be found in war. The alternation between standing up and lying down for protection from opposing fire, for example, clearly follow the pattern of pull-ups done during instruction.
While it is obviously true that – with a few exceptions such as grenade-throwing – sporting and athletic activities cannot simply be transposed wholesale to practices in war, there are often parallels, albeit imperfect, involving physical abilities and, in particular, stamina. There is always a need to push oneself to the limit, and it is interesting to note that Pierre de Coubertin’s approaches can be seen in the infantry manuals, though his name is never mentioned.
In war situations, physical performance is vital. In present-day battles, performance is increasingly demanded by modes of operation, based on action by special forces, consisting of penetrating deeply into enemy arrangements – especially given that the idea of “the front” has become almost meaningless – or extricating personnel from hostile territory. The burden carried by each fighting man in the Afghanistan Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams is often 40 kilos. That is the type of load that the British soldiers already had to carry in the Falkland Islands in 1982, when the Chinook helicopters, which were supposed to carry them, had sunk with the transport ship Atlantic Conveyor. The paratroopers and Royal Marines had to undertake a slog on foot to Port Stanley, carrying on their backs Milan missiles, 81 mm mortars and FN machine guns.
Under these conditions, we need to be daring and draw another parallel, somewhat iconoclastic this time, with activities in sport, and in particular as now happens in professional sport. The use of illicit drugs may be prohibited in civil society, but it is no more improbable in military environments than in high-level sport. As Patrick Godart has indicated: “Just like sportsmen, present-day soldiers seek to improve their performance.”31 While the heavy use of drugs in the American forces in Vietnam, especially after 1968, was certainly not intended to boost physical performance – quite the opposite, when you consider the substances consumed – the emphasis is now on substances that enable physical effort to be maintained at its peak for many hours. In September 1939, the British press got worried about the existence of a “miracle pill” that apparently abolished the effects of fatigue. A version of methamphetamine known as Pervitin had been developed in Berlin and was experimented on during the Polish campaign. The use of amphetamines and of more-sophisticated substances has for a great many years featured among fighters’ practices. Discussion of this widespread use is hardly a breach of military secrecy in the land of Astérix and his magic potion.
There are other avenues these days to develop fighters’ stamina, such as the research being carried out on the “exoskeleton”. This involves increasing the power of the muscles by supplying the human skeleton with forms of assistance boosted by the use of micro-motors or fuel cells. Digitisation of fighters is the current buzzword, particularly in France, where the Atomic Energy Commission’s robotics department has developed a prosthetic jointed arm. The Felin programme sketches out a picture of the new warrior32. It is clear that there is a danger: that the extreme technology that is supposed to robotise fighters and avoid the need for physical effort will actually undermine them, with the technological shell being weighty and energy-consuming, just making the soldier a beast of burden.
And yet, nowadays some people suggest that a great many in France’s armed forces are not ready to face the physical realities of war. In a September 2008 “free opinion” that was certainly contentious, a major with a commission in the infantry wrote: “The French soldier is both poorly equipped and ill prepared. For instance, with very rare exceptions, the soldiers no longer undergo training, no longer engage in manoeuvres and no longer toughen up. This insufficient preparation and inadequate equipment testify to our lack of realism about the hardness of future conflicts and the real operational capabilities of French soldiers. This observation is devastating enough when it relates to the combat units, but it is distressing when you see it applies throughout the French army. How many of the soldiers are unsuited to carrying, or even to shooting (which would be the last straw for a soldier)?”33 Another writer hammered the nail in still more damagingly: “The army is not being prepared to fight guerrilla activity, a form of combat that is demanding both physically and mentally. The priority in fact remains above all to deal with the low proportion who receive specialist training. Instead of converting our young recruits into fighters, too often the effort is put into courting popularity by being too gentle with them. Meanwhile, the training of our young NCOs gives excessive attention to teaching English and IT skills. This instruction hardly seems designed to create tough fighters and determined leaders.”34
To conclude, we must obviously enlarge the questions about the links between sporting and athletic activities on the one hand, and those of war on the other. Since the beginning of the new millennium in France, the high command has expressed concern about the decline in physical condition of young volunteers. They come from a society used to luxury, and unfamiliar with physical effort; they have little in common with the sturdy peasants who formed the majority of “the people” who manned the trenches in the Great War. Certainly, as we said at the outset, we need to look at the relationship of people’s bodies in war with much more than just sporting and athletic activities. The bodies produced by present-day society are nothing like those produced by the society that existed in 1914.
Twenty-year-old Frenchmen are certainly some 15 centimetres taller, on average, than those of 1914, but they are less muscular and less hardy, and have less stamina. However, looking beyond the extraordinary changes in social conditions, the totally different standards of comfort and the change from an army of conscripts to a professional army, current conditions of engagement in Afghanistan show that physical training is still the condition sine qua non for survival of troops in battle. This must be my final word here on the subject.
The author wishes to thank Nathalie Sevilla, Senior Lecturer in Sciences & Technology of Physical and Sporting Activities at Paul-Verlaine-Metz university, for her willingness to contribute ideas to this article.
1 Colonel Aumoine (ed.), Une histoire culturelle du sport. De Joinville à l’olympisme. Rôle des armées dans le mouvement sportif français [A Cultural History of Sport. From Joinville to the Olympics. The armed forces’ role in the French sporting movement], Ministère de la Défense, Commissariat aux Sports Militaires, Éditions Revue eps, 1996. In particular, reading the contributions of Gilbert Andrieu – Du “débourrage” du futur fantassin à la morale de l’effort [From “breaking in” a prospective infantryman to the mental approach to effort] (pp. 35-47), where the author recalls that at the beginning of the 20th century sport and physical education were kept well separate – and of Jean-François Loudcher & Christian Vivier – Gymnastique, éducation physique et sports dans les manuels militaires, xixe-xxe siècle [Gymnastics, physical education and sporting activities in 19th & 20th century military manuals] (pp. 21-33) – can prove instructive.
2 Jean-Philippe Dumas, Aux origines de la “méthode naturelle” : Georges Hébert et l’enseignement de l’éducation physique dans la Marine française [Origins of the “natural method”: Georges Hébert and physical-education instruction in the French navy], Revue Internationale d’Histoire Militaire, No. 76.
3 Capitaine Leblois, Le dressage individuel du tireur de champ de bataille [Knocking individual battlefield marksmen into shape], Revue de l’Infanterie, April 1912, quoted by Dr Nimier in Carnet du docteur [Doctor’s Notebook], Le Tir, Paris, Éditions Pierre Lafitte, 1914, p. 373.
4 Georges Hébert, L’Éducation physique, virile et morale par la méthode naturelle [Physical, manly and mental education by the natural method]. Volume I, Exposé doctrinal et principes directeurs du travail [Exposition of theory and guiding principles], Paris, republished by Librairie Vuibert, 1936 and 1942, Foreword, p. 10. They spoke more of gymnastics than of sporting activities at that time.
5 Pierre Arnaud, Le Militaire, l’Écolier, le Gymnaste. Naissance de l’éducation physique en France (1869-1889) [Soldiers, scholars and gymnasts: the birth of physical education in France, 1869-89], Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1991.
6 Bons pour le service. L’expérience de la caserne en France à la fin du xixe siècle [Good for service life. Barrack experience in France at the end of the 19th century], Paris, Belin, 2000.
7 www2.ac-lille.fr/patrimoine-caac. Heading: Les premiers élans, l’échappée sportive [Building up momentum and the sporting break-away].
8 Annie Crépin, La Conscription en débat ou le triple apprentissage de la nation, de la citoyenneté, de la République (1798-1889) [Debate on Conscription, or the triple training: for the nation, citizenship and republicanism], Artois Presses Universités, Arras.1998.
9 François Cochet, Les Soldats de la « drôle de guerre » [The Soldiers of the Phoney War], Paris, Hachette, La Vie quotidienne [Daily Life], 2004.
10 Patrick Godart, Le guerrier et la danseuse étoile [The fighter and the prima ballerina], in Le corps guerrier, Inflexions No. 12, Paris, La Documentation Française, 2009.
11 A summary of data collected in the course of a medical-profile examination. The profile considers the pectoral girdle and upper limbs (S), the pelvic girdle and lower limbs (I), general state of health (G), eyes (Y), auditory system (O) and psychological state (P).
12 Idem, now MGI/29, p. 54.
13 MGI/29, p. 55.
14 MGI/29, p. 56.
15 MGI/29, p. 59.
16 MGI/29, p. 70.
17 Arnaud-Dominique Houte, Le Métier de gendarme national au xixe siècle. Pratiques professionnelles, esprit de corps et insertion sociale de la monarchie de juillet à la Grande Guerre [The occupation of national gendarme in the 19th century. Occupational practices, esprit de corps and involvement of the July Monarchy in the Great War], Université de Paris-IV-Sorbonne, 9 December 2006, p. 569.
18 Jean-Julien Weber, Sur les pentes du Golgotha. Un prêtre dans les tranchées [On the Golgotha slopes. A priest in the trenches], Strasbourg, La Nuée Bleue, 2001, p. 184.
19 Écrit du front. Lettres de Maurice Pensuet, 1915-1917 [War writings. Letters from Maurice Pensuet, 1915-17], Paris, Tallandier, 2010, p. 302.
20 Georges Hébert, L’Éducation physique, virile et morale par la méthode naturelle [Physical manly and mental education by the natural method]. Volume I, Exposé doctrinal et principes directeurs de travail [Exposition of theory and guiding principles], 4th edition, Paris, Vuibert, 1943, p. 277.
21 Quoted by Élie Pelaquier, L’image des soldats territoriaux chez les officiers des régiments au début de la Grande Guerre [Image of Territorial soldiers among the regiments’ officers at the beginning of the Great War], Combats. Hommage à Jules Maurin [Fighting. Homage to Jules Maurin], Paris, Michel Houdiard publisher, 2010, p. 157.
22 Idem, p. 160.
23 Maurice Genevoix, Ceux de 14 [Those of 1914], republished. Paris, Le Seuil, 1984, p. 38.
24 Idem, p. 16.
25 Daniel Mornet, Tranchées de Verdun [Verdun trenches], Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1990, pp. 14-15.
26 Nickname given by the poilus to their backpack because, like a good dog, it faithfully followed its master.
27 Maurice Pensuet, op. cit., pp. 313, 350, 351, 360.
28 Marc Bloch, Écrits de guerre [War writings], Paris, Armand Colin, 1997, p. 14.
29 Capitaine Charles Delvert, Carnets d’un fantassin. Massiges, 1916, Verdun [An infantryman’s notebooks from Massiges and Verdun in 1916], Verdun, Éditions du Mémorial, Témoignages et Mémoires. Comité National du Souvenir de Verdun, 1981, p. 177.
30 Idem, p. 167.
31 Patrick Godart, op. cit., p. 35.
32 Marc Chassillan, Charles-Antoine Schwanhard & Éric Micheletti (defence secrecy), Les super-fantassins [Super-infantrymen], Raids magazine, Les armes du futur [“Weapons of the Future” special issue No. 16], 2005, pp. 22-23.
33 Major Frédéric Bos, 121st promotion of cesat/csem, Quelle réalité pour le soldat en 2008 [What are the realities for soldiers in 2008?], Les Cahiers du cesat, No. 13, September 2008, p. 71-72.
34 Major Hubert Beaudoin, 121st promotion of cesat/csem, L’armée de terre ne s’instruit plus pour vaincre… [The army no longer trains for victory], Les Cahiers du cesat, No. 13, September 2008, p. 84.